Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins may well be the most wholly accomplished and satisfying film to come our way all year (and bear in mind, the year is creeping up on the halfway mark). In some ways, it’s essentially a standard samurai film, but in other ways, it completely subverts that claim. Setting the film in an end-of-an-era time when the samurai and their code are about to become extinct, it would have been an easy task to trade on the inherent emotional kick that comes with watching an era pass, and to sentimentalize the samurai. 13 Assassins, however, has very little use for senimentality of any kind, and instead makes the case that there are very good reasons for this era to end—even suggesting that the samurai code of unswerving allegiance is itself at fault and flawed, and needs to die to make way for modern man.
Do not, however, get the idea that 13 Assassins is in any sense a deeply meditative think-piece. This is a full scale epic. It trades in spectacle and is essentially a really big Western that takes place in 1844 Japan. To give some idea of how much the film sticks to the action/spectacle concept, nearly the entire second half of the film consists of the prolonged showdown between our 13 assassins and the much larger forces of the story’s central villain, Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), who, by the way, is the most thoroughly detestable and frightening bad guy to come along in some considerable time.
The film spends its first half establishing the insane perfidy of Naritsugu and the reason behind the outnumbered 13 samurai’s (well, 12 samurai and one eccentric hanger-on) equally insane mission to assassinate the man. Naritsugu redefines the idea of the degenenerate aristocrat. He doesn’t merely think nothing of raping and viciously murdering anyone any time it strikes his fancy, but he revels in his innate sense of superiority and the psychotic kicks he gets from his actions. The central issue is forced when he rapes the daughter-in-law of a host, hacks her husband to death when he dares to object, and then knocks off the ravished lady for good measure. It is this—combined with being shown the lone survivor (a woman left with no arms, feet or tongue) of one of his murderous escapades—that prompts the retired samurai Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) to come out of retirement and assemble his elite band of assassins. He—along with the people who desire his aid—realizes the depths into which the country will be plunged when Naritsugu attains his full power.
Some time is spent on assembling the crew, intelligently mapping out their campaign, and—for the sake of good drama—setting up the fact that Naritsugu’s chief samurai protector, Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), is an old classmate of Shinzaemon—and his old nemesis. There are no prizes for guessing the order in which the various showdowns that make up the film’s final section will take place.
What makes the film work—beyond the performances and the magnificently staged last section—has much to do with the inclusion of that 13th nonsamurai assassin. This is Koyata (Yusuke Iseya), a wily, disreputable mountain hunter, who doesn’t think much of the samurai or their code from the onset and becomes progressively less impressed as the story unfolds. In many ways, he seems to represent the modern man—one who thinks for himself and is increasingly skeptical of tradition for its own sake. I suspect this is why Miike’s final scene is the major instance in the film that topples over into something like outright fantasy.
But the big selling point, of course, is that final showdown between the valiant 13 and Naritsugu and his men—and it works from start to finish. It’s huge, it’s exciting, the action is coherent, and its choreographic violence is a delight to behold (though bear in mind that is very violent and bloody, though not excessively bloody). Few action films have ever even attempted to sustain such a scene this long—and even fewer have succeeded. Do yourself a favor, though, and see this on the big screen. This does not belong on a TV. Rated R for sequences of bloody violence, some disturbing images and brief nudity.